Role Playing and Education

How I learned to love an unusual teaching tool
May 7, 2014

I've been thinking lately about roleplaying since a friend of mine introduced me to the world of tabletop role playing games. I had never really understood what these were (besides some hilariously ridiculous videos on youtube) apart from the fact that many Christians had a problem with them--in particular the tabletop game, Dungeons and Dragons. When I was growing up, D&D was generally equated with the occult--somewhere on the level of playing with a Ouija board. I haven't taken the time to look at why Christians were so terrified of this "table-top rpg," but I'm assuming it is linked to the same argument that some still use against reading the Harry Potter books: we shouldn't have anything to do with witchcraft, sorcery, or magic of any kind. This article offers some interesting insights into the issue. 

But this is not a post arguing whether or not we should participate in anything that imagines or alludes to magic, though that is an interesting debate. I would like to explore, rather, the general concept of roleplaying, which often holds negative connotations: when we hear "roleplaying" we generally assume it is sexual in nature, or else it is some weird thing that people who aren't well-adjusted socially might participate in. Up until a few weeks ago, all of my responses to the word "roleplay" would have been sarcastic, dismissive, or mocking. But I've found that roleplaying is far more important and necessary than I ever would have thought. 

The first thing I realized is that my children's play consists almost entirely of roleplay. My two- and three-year-old boys will spend hours pretending to be cats--and they are very serious about it, too. My two-year-old will be totally silent (aside from sporadic "meows") and refuse to speak to you when he is pretending to be a cat, because, of course, cats can't speak. Other times the boys will crawl around making 'nests' out of blankets, pretending to eat things that cats eat (which leaves me having to answer difficult questions like "do cats like strawberries?"), or just crawling on top of me and cuddling. My boys are decidedly not cuddly, but when they are cats, they will curl up into a ball on my lap and sit there contently while I stroke their backs. They are not themselves for these periods of time, and they seem to find it intensely enjoyable.

If they aren't roleplaying as cats, they are pretending to be something. Wolves, dragons, fish, trains--you name it. And watching them I came to realize that roleplaying isn't some special form of entertainment that certain people come to when they are older; roleplaying is the original form of play that we all as children used to participate in, but now have 'outgrown.' I could say more here, but it is a tragedy that we adults have forgotten how to play as children. 

Roleplaying is also important because it requires narration, which Charlotte Mason calls the "ground-plan" of education. "Narrating is an art," Mason says, "like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child's mind, waiting to be discovered and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education." Much of my children's playing is punctuated with spontaneous narration and dialogue, even if they are doing something as simple as driving one of their toy trains around a track ("'slow down, slow down!' the driver yelled"). If my children are not pretending to be some other person, animal, or object, then they are most likely involved in telling a story about a person, animal, or object. Roleplaying goes hand in hand with narration, and both are intimately tied to a strong imagination. 

While my initial interest in roleplaying was focused on table-top games that allow players to immerse themselves in a fantastic world to have exciting adventures, I began to see that, done deliberately, it could play a powerful role in the classroom. 

Take rhetoric, for instance. When giving a speech, I often talk with my students about creating some space between them--the person writing and giving the speech--and the persona that they are embodying for that particular speech. But that is incredibly difficult to do. It is less difficult, however, when you are able to pretend that you are someone else entirely when you are giving your speech, because it allows you to experiment with different rhetorical strategies without any threat to your own identity; if that ethos didn't work out too well, no harm done--try another one. So many of my students' (and my own) fears about speaking in front of people stem from an insecurity that any rhetorical failing on our part will immediately be irrevocably linked to our own identity. It's hard enough to try at something and fail, but when that failure reflects directly back onto your own identity--that is terrifying. 

There are a lot of ways in which roleplaying can be utilized in various types of classes. In my Philosophy and Ethics class, my students have had to research many of the modern "isms." Once we have finished presentations on those philosophies, each student will adopt a persona that we have created. They will all find themselves in a horrible plane crash that leaves them stranded on a deserted island, and they will have to, in character, deal with the various moral dilemmas that will quickly arise from such a situation. The goal for this is not for students to argue what is the best thing to do when someone is mortally wounded, in great pain, and bound to die a painful death without hope of help. The goal is to have the students try to imagine how a secular humanist will approach the situation differently than, say, a nihilist. I'm curious to see how it goes. 

I would even argue that this, the most brilliant assignment ever given to a student of philosophy, is in essence utilizing principles of roleplay--which is part of the reason it is so brilliant. 

But already in several of my classes the principles of roleplay are creating new ideas to embody and show forth the ideas and concepts which, in class, can so often remain abstract and bloodless. There is something fundamentally different in asking students to practice using the parts of a discourse to persuade their audience of the ethical rightness of some modern issue, and asking them to practice using the parts of a discourse while playing the part of Belor the Elf, who has been caught trespassing on the Dwarven King Reygold's mountain--who needs to be given three very good reasons not to disconnect your head from your shoulders.

My understanding is that the word 'schola,' from which we derive school, originally meant something like 'play.' I think that roleplaying offers teachers and parents an incredible form by which to help our children and students experiment and play with the ideas they are trying to understand and synthesize. Roleplaying brings together imagination and narration in such a way that allows us to play with the tools and concepts that we are giving our children, and if done creatively it can be used in any of the courses across the curriculum. The only limit to how it can be used in various courses is, I would say, one's own imagination. Any ideas on how roleplay could be used in a math class?

One last thought:

Roleplaying often causes us to re-think our own identity. For instance, you have to remove yourself from your own thoughts, opinions, and prejudices in order to get inside the head of the character that you are playing to find out what that person would have thought, said, or done. But doing this can give you a perspective on yourself that you had never considered before (in this sense I would say all good reading involves an element of roleplay--you imagine that you are Aeneas, or Beowulf, or whoever), and that re-imagining of yourself can be very powerful. 

I will never forget one experience that I had when I was able to, for a brief, brief moment, glimpse an imagining of who I could possibly be outside of myself. I was walking through a grocery store, weighed down by my own failures, addictions, and shortcomings--and for one brilliant moment I was able to imagine myself as being the sort of person that had overcome those failures, addictions, and shortcomings. And in being able to imagine that person, I was able, to some degree, to begin to become that person. Until you can imagine the type of person you want to be, you probably won't have success in becoming that sort of person. I'm not promoting some 'name it/claim it' idea here, only the fact that the human mind often (if not always) needs to be able to see the thing it is not in order to try and become that thing. 

As Christians, we are all (or all should be) involved in a daily game of roleplaying: we are all called to be imitators of Christ. We should not wake up each day and set out to 'be ourselves;' rather, we should wake up each day and try to be the sorts of people who love God with our whole hearts and minds, who love our neighbors as ourselves. I don't know about you, but for me that takes some serious roleplaying.

Joshua Leland

Josh Leland is a humanities teacher at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC. He earned his BA and MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He and his wife, Rebekah, also a teacher, and their four little children, Ransom, Calvin, Alethea, and Mary, live in Charlotte, NC. [Editor's note: He's also quite a good poet]. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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